At work with: Mark Leeds and Kevin Wilson, The Financial Times

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A few weeks ago the Financial Times launched a complete redesign of its print edition. As the new design settles into regular production we look ahead at the week with Kevin Wilson (above left), head of design and graphics at the newspaper since 2008, and design consultant Mark Leeds (right). The two previously worked together at The Guardian, where they contributed to the 2005 redesign. Since then Leeds has been part of the teams behind the reinvention of Bloomberg Businessweek and Elle UK.

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Where are you today?

Mark Leeds: I’m with the Financial Times Weekend Magazine today – its a role I’ve done since 2010 – consulting one day a week.  I encourage the creativity in their team and bring an outside perspective and occasional curve ball to the magazine and together we create the covers and concepts for each issue. It’s varied and exciting

Kevin Wilson: Financial Times HQ on Southwark Bridge

What can you see from the window?
ML: We have an amazing view from the south bank, looking over the Thames towards the financial heart of the city. It’s almost at ground level, with one way glass, and we get to see people strolling by. In the summer you see tourists taking photos of the reflections in our window – which at the time was a little unsettling with the ‘secret’ work in progress pages stuck on the wall. Is it really one-way? I’ll have to go and look.

KW: A tug towing refuse barges down the Thames, and tourist boats going the other way – it’s very therapeutic having the river nearby.

Are you morning or evening people?
ML: Definitely an evening person, out of necessity and choice. For the FT redesign necessity in terms of Skyping typographer Kris Sowersby in New Zealand, but the evening also allows some reflection and deeper thinking time. Crank up the music, and try lots of ideas quickly – then see in the morning if any still make sense. There’s definitely music to design to. And music to design grids to.

KW: (Relatively) early morning and (relatively) late evening. That’s when there’s a chance to do the design work. The middle of the day can dissolve into serial meetings. During projects like the redesign, it’s fun (and necessary) to stretch the day at both ends.

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What’s your favourite magazine this morning?
ML: I’m not particularly loyal to any one magazine. Occasionally I buy Bloomberg Businessweek, this week because of the cover story about business learning from McClaren Motorsport. I like that sort of tangential idea. I just bought Monocle for the first time in ages, based more on the fact I have time rather than anything on the cover. I know there’ll be a few nuggets inside that I’ve not read before. I like something with a strong personality and opinion.

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KW: The London Review of Books, The Week – opposite ends of the scale when it comes to brevity but both excellent at what they do.

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And newspaper?
ML: Hah! Can I say the FT without sounding like I’m brown-nosing? Listening to reader groups during the FT redesign I began to realise quite how highly its content is rated. They said loudly they liked its intelligence, its analysis and how it highlights emerging trends (and also: ‘don’t screw up my newspaper’). I’ve made an effort to read beyond my normal range and its rewarding.  I have a soft spot for The Guardian, but I read it mostly online.

KW: On Mondays I like catching up with international weekend newspapers (and their magazines). Particular favourites include FA Sonntagzeitung and Die Zeit – the confident, precise design and unapologetic seriousness is very satisfying.

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The Financial Times is one of the last broadsheets. Was a move to a smaller format ever discussed?
ML: I find it incredible how much prestige is wrapped up in the physical size of UK newspapers. Along with the pink paper, the large format is an important part of the FT’s heritage.

We did explore other formats early on but for me the FT makes sense as a broadsheet. The experience of folding, and folding again is really satisfying (I’d love to design something at the 1/4 size) and the dynamic of the design is different to tabloid and Berliner, each page can operate more as a single page. This is useful too for the many international editions. In practical terms their printing presses have many years of service left so replacing those would be an unnecessary and unjustifiable expense.

KW: I love the scale of a broadsheet page – it’s a great setting for the FT’s journalism: considered, elegant, well structured, and an unrivalled canvas when you want to increase the scale for great photography or a full-page graphic.

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Designing a newspaper is a huge project, spanning major decisions and tiny details. What’s one thing about the FT redesign that still makes you smile each day?
ML: At the micro micro level, the small victories over the Methode IT system (no Open Type use at the moment). One of our changes was to use an em dash not en dash. Ligatures next…

KW: Meeting Sir Harold Evans – it was a thrill to show him dummy papers, and receive his advice on everything from picture usage to typography. His one-word recipe for success – ‘Vivacity!’

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The design is very pared back, space on the page is a vital ingredient as is the new typeface Financier. What was the brief you gave the typographer, and how did that process work?
ML: On the design side, we wanted to define and clarify some of the story types – news, analysis, trends etc. By moving from eight to six columns we could redistribute some of the empty space, increase the line lengths a littlew and rationalise the ad grid. Six columns also meant fewer layout combinations were required, making the daily puzzle easier to solve.

But it wasn’t all cold hard maths and production. I think the new grid changes the feel of the broadsheet page and in some part reflects that the crash-bag–wallop of just-in-time news has moved to other forms of media. It’s still news-driven but edited to run the cream (one reader described it as gold top) of the day’s stories .

Kevin and I thought Kris Sowersby would be the right choice, I’d spoken with him a few times about other projects, and really admired Tiempos. I also introduced Kris to Suzanne Sykes at Elle, where we used his Domaine (and there’s a cracking Domaine Sans)

We wanted something modern, sharp able to handle a variety of news and distinctive. Kris is a real scholar of type history and we all liked the idea of an English heritage to the typeface. In our chats we said some quick comments which ended up being informative to Kris. There was some give and take – I think the outcome is a good collaboration. Kris has a full account on his website.

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KW: The starting point was the six-column grid. The redesign was a chance to define what print could deliver best – the editor didn’t want a snapshot of the website at a point in the day but an edited selection of the best FT content. So we could change the pace of the paper from the traditional crammed eight columns to a more relaxed six-column structure. Editorial priorities are clearer, clutter is reduced, and graphics and pictures have a chance to shine.

We made a decision early on to have a custom serif created for the redesign – the FT is a global brand, a status symbol that retains its prestige as a physical object, and we wanted to deliver something distinct and new but that respected the paper’s history and reputation. All these factors fed into our brief to Kris Sowersby: we wanted an elegant, authoritative serif with the versatility to handle everything from markets news to arts essays. The weekday Financial Times is quite a different beast from its weekend sibling. One a sharp, need-to-know tool for a professional audience, the other an expansive, relaxed showcase for journalism on the arts, science and culture as well as politics and finance.

And we wanted to call on the paper’s 126-year heritage as a global organisation based in London. Something that reflected a move beyond the traditional newspaper typeface – and that would work well on digital. We did a lot of work on graphics as part of the project – line styles, colours, portability web to print – and chose Kris’s Metric family to complement Financier.

What’s next for you both?
ML: Some FT Magazine special issues and working with Mark Porter again (not in print, very exciting). Not sure after that

KW: I’ve reluctantly left the redesign bunker and gone back to the day job. The next priority is bringing more richness and structure to our digital packages.

What are you most looking forward to this week?
ML: Seeing the ideas for a graphic in an upcoming special issue for the first time. Some lunches outside the office, current favourite The Table, 83 Southwark St

KW: Getting to the end of the week and the first holiday for a long while. A bit of physical and mental distance will be most welcome.

What are you least looking forward to this week?
ML: Admin. Other than that its looking good!

KW:  Morning rush hour on the Northern Line – a less welcome side effect of the new publishing schedule at the paper

What will you be doing after this chat?
ML: Quick coffee, back to the magazine and try to finish this weeks cover.

KW: Getting the coffees in and running through the last items on the redesign snag list. As everyone who has done a redesign knows, the hardest part is maintaining momentum and the same level of finish a few weeks into the new design.

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